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Environmental Factor, December 2015

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Children’s health highlighted at D.C. events

By Virginia Guidry

Linda Birnbaum speaking

"NIEHS spends approximately $115 million annually on children's health research and we cherish our long-term partnership with EPA on the children's environmental health centers," said Birnbaum, right, while Ruth Etzel, M.D., Ph.D., director of the EPA Office of Children’s Health Protection, looked on. (Photo courtesy of Keeli Howard)

Tom Burke

“The most important thing that we can do to protect children’s health is to improve the implementation of our science,” said EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Thomas Burke, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Keeli Howard)

Children’s environmental health research was the focus of the Oct. 29-30 annual meeting of the NIEHS-U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers. NIEHS and EPA staff and center grantees discussed ongoing research at the Washington, D.C., event.

“The children’s centers were established to increase our understanding of children’s unique vulnerability to harmful environmental exposures,” said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, in her opening talk. “This research has helped to guide the development of protective measures for children in the United States and around the world.”

NIEHS and EPA have jointly funded 23 children’s centers across the country since 1998. The centers examine the effects of air pollution, metals, pesticides, and other environmental contaminants on children’s health and developmental outcomes. They also provide outreach and education to those concerned about children’s environmental health.

Environmental health across the life span

A common theme among attendees was the need to consider the entire life span when protecting children’s health. They stressed that exposures in early life can set a course for health outcomes later in life — a concept called early programming.

Bradley Peterson, M.D., of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, explained that much of the brain’s structure is established during the prenatal period and early childhood. Exposure to common air pollutants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, during this time can result in permanent changes to brain structure.

Michael Lu, M.D., from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration, addressed the cumulative effects of environmental exposures across a lifetime. “If we want to improve children’s health, starting in childhood is not early enough. Even prenatal care is too late to reverse the accumulation of dioxins in maternal body fat, or epigenetic changes that get passed down from parents as a result of early exposures to nutrition, toxic stress, and environmental factors,” Lu said. “So we really need to take a life course approach to children’s health.”

Research that informs health policy

Children’s centers grantees presented new research on topics ranging from obesity, reproductive health, and neurodevelopmental disorders, to air pollution, nutrition, stress, and poverty. Grantees also discussed how to make their research findings useful for the development of health policies.

A suggestion heard frequently from attendees was the need to include environmental health topics in required training for obstetricians, pediatricians, and family practice providers. “Obstetricians aren’t thinking about how exposures in pregnant mothers now are going to affect their children when they’re 10, 30, 40 years old,” said Rosalind Wright, M.D., from Mount Sinai Hospital. “If we’re going to focus on pregnant women, we have to educate obstetricians that environmental factors are important.”

Gregory Diette, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University, encouraged scientists to align their research with the information regulators need to protect public health. “Linking studies so they can be implemented at the policy level is crucial,” he said. “It is not enough to show that ozone is bad — we have to show that ozone at a certain threshold is bad, so regulators can use that information.”

(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)

  • Breysse

    “We translate the science from the children’s centers into interventions that local and state health departments can use to make the environment safer for children,” said Patrick Breysse, Ph.D., director of the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Photo courtesy of Keeli Howard)

  • Gail Christopher

    Gail Christopher, D.N., vice president for policy and senior advisor at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, spoke about programmatic interventions designed to help minimize toxic exposures during early life stages during her keynote address. (Photo courtesy of Keeli Howard)

  • Virginia Rauh Speaking

    Virginia Rauh, Sc.D., deputy director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, conducts research on the effects of air pollution on early brain development. (Photo courtesy of Keeli Howard)

  • Jennifer Lowry

    Jennifer Lowry, M.D., medical director of the Center of Environmental Health at Children’s Mercy Hospital, explained the role of Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units in translating children’s environmental health research to clinical and public health practitioners. (Photo courtesy of Keeli Howard)

  • Lu, Michael

    “Often the people that could benefit the most from environmental health research are the ones with the least access to information — the ones living next to the toxic waste dump or being exposed to endocrine disruptors or pesticides at work,” said Lu, during his keynote address. “So we have to continually ask how we can extend access to those who could benefit the most from the work that we do.” (Photo courtesy of Keeli Howard)

  • Sally Darney

    Sally Darney, Ph.D., editor of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), emphasized that EHP can help play an active role in research translation for children’s environmental health. (Photo courtesy of Keeli Howard)

  • Bruce Lanphear

    Bruce Lanphear, M.D., gave a keynote address about how small health effects for individual children can accumulate into large population level impacts. “Little shifts in children’s IQ scores from exposures to chemicals such as lead or flame retardants can result in substantially more children who are intellectually challenged, and fewer who are intellectually gifted. These effects increase when children are exposed to multiple toxins,” he said. (Photo courtesy of Keeli Howard)

NIEHS and EPA brief congressional staff

A packed crowd attended a congressional briefing about children’s environmental health Oct. 28 in Washington, D.C. The offices of North Carolina Reps. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) hosted the event.

Birnbaum opened the briefing by explaining that NIEHS makes children’s health research a priority, because of the lifelong impacts it can have. She described current initiatives, including the Children’s Health Exposure Analysis Resource (CHEAR). Thomas Burke, Ph.D., Deputy Assistant Administrator of the EPA Office of Research and Development, provided a personal look at the importance of children’s health, based on his prior work as a state health director and his current position as the EPA science advisor.

Three directors from NIEHS-EPA Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers shared the impacts of their research:

  • Peterson used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) pictures to show how pesticides and air pollution can alter brain development in children.
  • Rob McConnell, M.D., from the University of Southern California, shared growing evidence that air pollution not only worsens, but also causes, asthma.
  • Catherine Metayer, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of California, Berkeley, discussed how exposures to chemical mixtures, such as those used when painting, can increase the risk of developing childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia.

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